Saturday, November 23, 2019

Sorry I Haven't Written. I've Been Writing.

Well, I slipped on the blog posts routine. On the other hand, I've been writing quite a lot. I've written a short story for the first time in over a decade. I'm shopping it around to some magazines at the moment, but whether it finds a home or not, it feels good to be back at story making. I've also been working on my poems with more regularity. I've been getting in about an hour session in at the computer about three times a week. And it feels great. Just like having a regular workout, I can feel my head getting into the work faster, not to mention staying there; I find myself thinking about lines of verse or plots while riding the train or brushing my teeth. Still, the daily routine is eluding me, but I think it's close.

After trying to get back to this for years, I've finally achieved it by making some changes in my drinking. As much as I love that after-work beer or two, I realized that once I'd cracked one open, my body knew the work day was over. And of course, that was the first thing I'd want to do after getting home from a long day. So, I started not drinking at all during the week. Not a hard-and-fast rule, but for almost every weekday over the last month I skipped the end-of-day beer. This also slowed my drinking down during the weekends, as I lately I can get pretty drunk on two beers now.

The result, I have more energy in the morning, so I'm quicker to get my day started, and I end up with a bit more time and energy at the end of the day.

I'm not trying to advocate for this or start some cult of weekend drinkers. Just sharing what I did and how I find it working so far.

Follow-up since writing and drafting this a few weeks back. With the holidays approaching and friends visiting Japan, I have been going out here and there during the week and it shows. My routine is off--as the holidays will do, I suppose. So, no regrets there, but I know when it's time to get back to solid work, I need to set aside full-days for it.

Anyway, this feels kind of soft for post--a little bit of just me rambling--but I really wanted to get something up as it's been awhile so here. More to come before the end of the year!

And speaking of holidays! (And the need of an image.) Here's a turkey!

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Home (to the Continuing Inferno Summer) from Home (Where Everybody Knows my Name)

Fresh back from the US! Well, some weeks back with the jet lag finally fading away. 

For some reason this trip home had me more reluctant to leave or at least more eager to return. I suppose my wife’s celebration of everything American (from waffle bars and Reddi-Whip at the hotel continental breakfast to the service workers with their frank distaste for their work: “Look there’s food on the floor and no one is rushing to clean it up. I love this country!”) had something to do with me feeling a bit nostalgic for my home country. That, and the easy familiarity of being home when I’ve lived so long so far away: chatting with cashiers and strangers and not feeling like one or both of us have some language or cultural learning motive behind it; not having language and culture be another layer of challenge to everything—whether asking for directions or phoning the bank with a question. I suppose such challenges are part of what I like about being here in Japan (and part of my wife’s excitement about being in the US) but it does wear at you with time. 

Another thing I’m realizing is that everyone is growing old. Well, everyone I know. That is, I’m old and getting older so everyone around me is doing the same, with some young people growing up on the periphery. It’s a mix bag, that. On one hand it’s obviously a little bit of a shock, but on the other it is true we do get better with age. The time and conversations I got to have with my friends and family seemed that much richer with our ever spreading gray hairs and chronic pains. And of course those young people who were little kids when we last met are suddenly young adults with opinions, ideas and goals blooming. Of course all of this just goes back to making me feel old. 

Nowhere did I feel the passage of time more than with my parents. I really had a lot of expectations on myself for this trip. Fatherhood has given me a new perspective and appreciation for what my parents have done for me and what I have—at times, many times—put them through. I wanted to be a good son, for at least a couple of weeks. Of course I fell short. I’m a frustrated son no matter what. But I think I came through at some important moments, even if I also failed at some. It would be good to go back and try again. Although, I guess there’s no reason I can’t try again from afar. But just being in the same country means a lot to them. Maybe I feel I can provide that. 

Finally, my wife and I want to be in the US again at some point for our son’s sake. On one hand we want him to know both cultures, but bigger than this we find many things we don’t like about secondary education here in Japan. There is no sense of cultivating the mind, only knowledge to be assimilated and tested to see your ranking in the next stage of education and then employment. Let me say, though, I have many friends and good parents who think the system here is better than what we have back in the US, largely in that the teachers are very active in helping students succeed at every step. And I think they make a strong point. But at the end of the day I’d rather be supplementing or encouraging self study to fill in for an inadequate education, than be trying to fight against the flood of facts and methods to be learned by rote here. 

 So, we’ve become more committed to the 10-year plan we dreamt up in recent months. That plan being to return to the US, likely Boston, and finally put my teaching certification to use in that great, little city. 

Still, things can change a lot in that time. For one, our son will be talking and forming his own opinions on this plan by then. And of course there is work; my wife and I have good jobs here, and moving in my late 40s/early 50s might not be the easiest of transitions. If things keep improving at work as they have been, it will be hard to pull away. And I won’t say more than to dip a toe in, but there is the politics to weigh in as well.

But, at the very least, thinking about it is exciting. And putting a bit extra into savings can’t hurt either. 

Anyway, here’s a picture of my folks’ backyard.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Summer Effect

A bit of an exaggeration there, but not much. Anyway, here's hoping I can get back on the weekly with this while traversing the northeast from today. That's right, the Breyaks are coming home. (For a couple of weeks.)

One of the strangest things about being a parent, I've found, is how the simplest things you know how to do--stand, walk, for example--can feel like disarming a bomb when you just through a baby in your arms. 

Flying out today has never felt so stressful. And of course, it's just the idea of the whole thing. I've taken precautions: booked a flight early, got the bassinet seat; sent our suitcases ahead of us to the airport so we don't have to juggle them with the stroller. And really my wife has done all the work when it comes to making sure we have what we need when we get there for Alex. Still, I feel like I'm flying to Mars. 

And when I get there, I'm supposed to drive! I've been driving for more than half of my life, and I feel like I'm going to screw up the gas and brake pedals or something. It's just crazy.

Of course, I just need to relax. Stressing out, if anything, will cause a problem. It's just strange how things change when you have this little life attached to yours. 

Anyway, going to leave it at that today. (Sorry, no visuals. Might add a pic later.) Hope you're all having a great summer. Will try to write again and keep you posted on mine as it unfolds. Stay cool, interwebs!

Saturday, June 29, 2019

Some Rambling on about Studying and (Somehow) Wilco

Preparing for the JLPT again. For those of you that don’t know what this is, it’s a standardized test to show your proficiency in Japanese. I missed the 2nd highest level last winter by about ten percentage points. Not fully sure why I’m taking it again. Other than revenge. And the possibility it might be handy on my resume at some point. And it does kick my ass to study. 

A little late to get my study on, but I think I can gear up in a couple of weeks. I’ve been doing a practice test every week and trying to dig in on my weak point, grammar. Seems to be working.

It’s interesting how necessities shift as you learn a language. Of course, all aspects of the language have their value and work together, but at different stages of development, different skills need more tuning.

For example, early on in language learning, I find that speaking and listening are the most important aspects to develop. Getting the sounds right and some basic back and forth is what you really need to build from. It gets you using the language as a tool to communicate rather than be tested on. Well, test in real life as opposed to filling in dots on an answer sheet. 

But you can only get so far focusing on listening and speaking alone. Saying something like “Where’s the toilet” or “I’ll have the noodles, please” is easy enough to pick up just in conversation, but something as seemingly simple as “I prefer noodles to rice” or “If it doesn’t rain, let’s go to the park” require some real hours of grammar head scratching, which, of course, also means reading.

I find the hardest part of making this shift in focus is recognizing when it’s necessary. Like any skill as you become better, you want to keep improving on your strengths, even if it means ignoring your weaknesses. Or, if you’re like me, finding ways in which your weakness are somehow, magically not weaknesses because where they lie are in aspects of your learning that are unimportant (ie grammar). In truth though, I now realize with some focused study in grammar I can really improve my understanding overall; what might seem like a boring task trying to improve something I’m not good at, can help me find breakthroughs in my strengths in ways that working on them alone just wouldn’t accomplish. 

What am I trying to say here? That is, beyond playing around with some thoughts on studying for a test most of you could care less about? 

It’s this, that learning is a wild thing. Tangential fields can open your mind in ways that you won’t know until you try. The things that you find dull, if you can find some interest in them, you can gain a better understanding for the things you love. And maybe even find something new to love. Hey, maybe you should study some Japanese?

I recently heard Jeff Tweedy of Wilco talking about how most of the music he listens to lately is music from genres he hates because he’s looking what it is he doesn’t know, trying to understand what there is to that music that makes people love it where he hates it. 

Who knows, maybe such exploration is what will help us find one another. Or maybe I'm just studying a little too much lately. 

Sunday, June 9, 2019

Allow Me to Speak Briefly on My Little Experience

Well, struggling to keep this thing going weekly. So here's a quick one just to try to get back in the rhythm.

Really not sure what to write about, so I suppose I can take advantage of my still recent role as a father. I'm still amazed by how quickly that transition happened. I imagined an adjustment like any big event life: moving to a new city, going to college, getting married. But becoming a father, it just changed. One day I wasn't a father and the next I was. I wonder if this is something all fathers feel.

The little guy is going to be 4 months old later this month. I'm sure I've come a long way since that first day my son came home. But I never felt like I was learning on the job. Sure, I was bad at it for a while. And I'm sure I have a lot to learn. But I've felt up to the task (even when maybe I wasn't) since day one. It feels like I was reprogrammed. It's magical, which is to say it's amazing and a little scary.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Why Game of Thrones Needed to Hurt Your Feelings

Sometimes social media shows itself to be the strange lens that it is. Lately, I’ve had this experience with Game of Thrones, the popular TV show (I mention for posterity or anyone waking from a coma), where I find that the more people dislike the latest episodes, the more I tend to like them. And this isn’t just people in their free time, but reporters and other professionals laying out elaborate analyses of just how this show has gone off the rails. Many even saying the GoT staff should apologize or, stunt or not, remake the final season. 

The fault, dear viewers, is not in the art, but in ourselves. For one, social media gives us the illusion of power to dictate how our media should be made. I say “illusion” here in the hope that we succeed less than we have already. I’m certain that most of the media we consume is made by people imagining how it might be tweeted about. It’s a scary world where art is democratized. 

Also, I think the distaste for how Game of Thrones is ending is a symptom of our feasting on the candy of superhero narratives for the last decade. Not that I have anything against superhero narratives. But for the last decade Hollywood has been saved by a constant outpouring of comic book superheroes from our childhood.  We’ve grown so soft from these narratives that it seems we can’t recognize tragedy even as we’re watching it unfold. 

The story people are coming down from, the Avengers, ended with a guy snapping his fingers and making the world back to what it was. Granted, we are watching fantasy here (both in narrative and in every great hero also having their own great costume designers) but the idea that things can become so terrible and that a magical act of sacrifice will not only stop the worst from getting worse, but will put everything back the way it was before is, well, Disney as it’s always been. 

Game of Thrones final episodes works to wake us from this fantasy. (Yes, I am talking about the show with dragons and ice zombies, but at its best—why we all fell for this show—these aspects are meant to show us humanity from a new perspective.)  The superhero of GoT is made historically accurate. The Iron Man of the last eight seasons becomes Thanos in the penultimate episode. Daenerys is elevated to such power that she becomes a brutal dictator (the image and the speech clearly meant to hit all the notes of 20th-century fascism/Stalinism). 

The only complaint I agreed with regarding this last season is that this turn in Daenerys felt rushed. But with the final episode I see that this transition happening in just two episodes was intentional. Liberators can become tyrants in the blink of an eye. Take your pick from history. 

In the end, Game of Thrones, in part at least, wound up being an allegory about absolutism and revolution. The wheel that had to be broken was not just that of kings and rulers seeking power, but of an underclass defeating the ruling class and then becoming the ruling class only to become corrupt and taken over again. Compromise is the message, or at least the political message, of this tragedy. 

As painful as it is to come down from this sugar high, thank god we have Game of Thrones to pull us back into balance. 

Depth of character does not come in always winning. It comes when we see heroes torn down in their prime, or decay before our eyes. It also serves to remind us that the world is not as simple as good conquering over evil. The decisions we make in life should come with caution, not just a rally cry.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

A Week Off

I missed last week. Sorry all. Had a bit of a stomach bug that had me hurrying to get ready for the week of work. But also, I have this week off!

So, I figured now would be a good time to tell the world about Super-Golden Week. This week marks the end of an era in Japan, literally. A new emperor will be named and in the land of 12-hour, six-day work weeks, everyone--well, arguably many people--will have the longest holiday they have seen: 10 solid days off. That is, unless you have any responsibility involving the calendar changes. The year in Japan will be going from Hesei 31 to Reiwa 1 on May 1st. This means there will be countless Japanese IT workers chewing on pens at midnight the way the world did for y2k.

For many people though, it seems a great time to travel, camp and relax. I hope this is truly the case.

As I'm sure many reading this know, those of us here who are not Japanese live a blessed life. Though there are of course certain problems (glass, nay, concrete ceilings, always being an "outsider") for the most part (and I know there are exceptions; and in particular with people newly emigrating from other parts of Asia to do manual labor) we're not expected to pull the crazy hours that our colleagues must.

Some of you not in Japan may have just a sense of how much people work here, so let me clarify it for you. Many white-collar workers in Japan work hours of overtime everyday. Many people with well-paying jobs are expected to work most weekends too; some people I know work 6-days a week every week, others get only a few days off a month. In addition to this, many are also expected to work through part or all of the longer holidays (Golden Week this time around being an exception) and are expected not to take contracted days off work.

People actually die of overwork here. Not suicide due to overwork (although this happens frequently enough) but die of exhaustion.

I don't think this nonstop-work is the case for all workers here, but it is for enough that it seems the norm. And with very little interest from the powers that be to enforce any restrictions, it seems to be a growing trend.  It's a hard life.

I worry in particular about having a family here because I think my immunity to working those hours (or, in other words, the fact I have the work I do have) is achievable only that I'm not Japanese. Though my son may grow up to be better than me at the work I do, he'll be expected to preform his duties as a Japanese citizen.

So, for those of you reading this who, like me, have found a way to enjoy these long breaks from work and make a living, let's keep in mind those of our friends, colleagues and family who are still plugging away. Let's help Japan make much needed reform or help our help the next generation find a way away from this country working them to death.